Aussie BBQs and the role of middle managers in the public sector

Posted on February 2, 2018

Over the festive season, I engaged in the traditional Aussie pastime of hosting a backyard barbeque. On one occasion I was asked to cook the steaks – a responsibility I was happy to accept. However, I was less happy to accept the unsolicited advice provided by what seemed like everyone at the barbeque—much of it contradictory to my own (obviously correct) cooking style.

This experience is similar to those of middle managers in the public sector. They are often the ‘meat in the sandwich’ – charged with the responsibility of managing the day-to-day operations of the organisation, with all the challenges that come with managing people, budgets and other aspects of their role.

However, they also have senior managers breathing down their neck, ensuring they are conducting business as usual while also innovating and implementing change. Many middle managers feel micro-managed and often aren’t provided with the resources they need to do the job. And when the project doesn’t turn out well, they are held accountable to the results.

Not trusting people to do the job, taking over or micro-managing them and then holding them accountable is not only demoralising, it prevents middle managers from developing their skills and achieving the desired outcomes. This is a common theme that has emerged in our work for a number of public sector organisation in recent times.

So what’s the solution? Rather than decrying the skills of middle managers or jumping straight into developing a middle management development program, it’s important to take a step back and define the problem. Are middle managers pushing tasks up, or are senior managers pushing them down? Is there a culture of micro-managing, or a vague ‘just get it done’ (both can be disempowering)?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so it’s important to tailor your management style to the individual needs of your middle managers. Some people need more support while they are finding their way, while others work best with autonomy. Whatever the solution, it’s important to take action before a culture of disempowerment and micro-management becomes the norm.

Just as I was hesitant to accept the responsibility of cooking the steaks the next time I attended a barbeque, middle managers will lean back and take on less responsibility if they feel micro-managed or disempowered in their role. To address this, it’s important to:

  • set clear expectations about what is expected of middle managers
  • check in with middle managers to see whether they need help delivering these outcomes, or require additional resources or tools
  • clarify the responsibilities of senior managers, including their role in nurturing middle managers
  • outline what results each manager needs to achieve and hold them accountable for these outcomes.

This can be an eye-opening process and lead to improved efficiency, leadership and trust among middle and senior managers in the organisation. If you’d like to gain clarity on the roles and responsibilities of your leadership team, get in touch and see how we can help.